Science Fiction Economics

The Lonely Dark

By Deborah L. Davitt
Nov 30, 2019 · 5,949 words · 22 minutes


Photo by Shotlist via Unsplash.

From the author: On Ceres, the most mining people usually see is done by drones sent out to other asteroids. But when disaster strikes, one man must make the ultimate sacrifice to save the rest of his colleagues.

Photons rained into Urvada Crater in the southern latitudes of Ceres, bathing the desolate landscape of the queen of the asteroid belt in rays of weak sunlight. Traces of water vapor lifted from the pinkish-silver regolith like fog, hugging the surface as if afraid to venture further. Above that surface veil, however, every shadow had a knife’s edge.

Emory Raske could see it all from where he sat in the control room of the Planetary Exploration mining complex, deep under the stone of Urvada Peak at the crater’s heart. Screens gave him a drone’s-eye view as he piloted his squadron out of the hangar airlock, and then sent them spinning up into space, escaping the microgravity like motes of dust dancing in the sun.

    Seventy-two other men and women shared the outpost with him. Most considered Ceres a hardship location, like working on an oil rig back on Earth. The hazard pay and medical benefits were generous, and for most people, it would help pay off  school loans and articles of corporate indenture at a substantially increased rate. None of them, including the managers, had been here longer than a year; none would stay longer than that.

Except for Emory Raske.

One of his coworkers bounced towards him, crashing into the cloth-covered partition that formed his cube. “Careful,” Emory cautioned, not taking his eyes off the screens. Radar, check, no other drones in my group’s vicinity . . . .

“Weren’t you supposed to clock out an hour ago?” the other man asked in a thick Mumbai accent.

“Yeah, but Bartosz is sick. I said I’d take her shift.” Emory kept his eyes on the screens, minutely adjusting the trajectory of his craft. Then, inspired, he flicked on his headset microphone and camera and began to record. “Hi, Pascal. Thought that maybe when you’re older, you’ll be interested in what Daddy does at work so far from home,” he said. “As you can see on the screen—I’ve got five interlinked drones that have just left Ceres’ gravity well. They use chemical propellant packs for that, and once they’re far enough away . . . I deploy their solar sails. Can’t do it too soon, or grains of surface rock will tear the sails.”

On the screen, bronze-tinted solar sails bloomed, unfurling like the petals of alien flowers. His coworker, still holding onto the cube wall, leaned over, practically putting his head beside Emory’s own. “I did not know that you had a son!” the man said with enthusiasm. “It’s hard being away from my own family. But in nine months, my contract will be up here—” His voice faltered as Emory waved a hand, trying to shush him.

“You’ll be wondering where all the asteroids are, I’m sure,” Emory continued recording. “Most of the vids and pictures you see are how artists imagine the asteroid belt. They think it’s crowded and dangerous, with boulders constantly colliding and shattering. I’m not saying that they don’t. But it’s not like bumper-cars out here either.” Emory paused. “Ask your mom to show you pictures of bumper-cars. Anyway, I’ve got a flight plan locked in that should take my drones down below the plane of the ecliptic. They’re okay to fly on their own for a bit, but I have to monitor them. Nothing to see here till they get to their designated rock.”

He clicked the recording off, and gave his coworker a look, frantically trying to recall the man’s name. They come, they go. I couldn’t even tell you what my manager’s name is, since she transferred in just three months ago.  “Jaidev, right?” At the man’s enthusiastic nod, Emory grimaced. “When someone’s recording, it’s good manners not to talk through it, all right?”

Jaidev looked abashed, but with a continued friendly smile, replied, “I’m most sorry to have interrupted. But I make a point of getting to know all of my co-workers, at every assignment. Networking helps. I do not intend to be a worker-bee forever, you know. I have hopes of management.” A shrug accompanied that lofty aspiration, and then he continued brightly, “Where is your family?”

“Mars,” Emory muttered, turning away. “Cydonia Outpost.”

A pause. “But . . . your son would have to be eighteen to be a member of Planetary Expeditions—”

“He’s three,” Emory replied curtly. Between the drop-it tone and the fact that he’d now entirely turned his back to his co-worker, he’d have thought that the message was clear.

“But that is not possible!” Jaidev persisted.

A chair scraped back in the cube to the left and Vassily Utkin leaned around the wall. “Jaidev, you have indicator light on your screen. Perhaps should look into it, eh?”

Emory felt the row of cubes wobble as Jaidev leaped away, and heard a crash as the other man landed in his own cube, not having compensated for the microgravity. Emory turned to look at Vassily and jerked a thumb in Jaidev’s direction. “Management candidate.”

“Is called failing upwards in English, yes?” Vassily’s grin stretched his face. “Need break? Can watch consoles for you.”

“Thanks, I’m good. Might hit the gym in a while, though.”

“Already live there in off-hours.” A snort from the Russian.

“When I got my contract for Mars, I knew that Martian gravity would turn me into a jellyfish if I ever returned to Earth.” Emory grimaced. “I’ve been on Ceres for three years, Vassily. I don’t want to be a jellyfish on Mars.” If I ever get back there.

Vassily thumped Emory on the shoulder in sympathy. The Russian was due to rotate out soon. But his calm, taciturn demeanor had endeared him to Emory, who simply tried to get through each day of his exile without dwelling on the past, ruminating on the future, or contemplating the present at all.

However, Jaidev’s well-meaning curiosity had brought it all up again. And with six hours till his fresh-launched drone fleet reached a suitable rock to begin mining, Emory had nothing to do besides reflect. Goddamned corporate contracts, he thought, listening to the low hum of voices reporting on the materials composition of this asteroid or that.

After a moment, he swallowed and began recording again. “Pascal,” Emory said, “I don’t know when you’ll be old enough to understand this. But . . .” He sighed. “It sounded good when I was twenty-two and had a college loan the size of Saturn to pay off. Planetary Explorations took over the loan. Gave me a ticket to Mars—to Mars, for god’s sake!—so I’d live there and work for them until my debts were paid.” He paused, and then added, “And the price of my ticket, and my food and lodging, and everything else. After that, the sky was the limit.” He couldn’t help the bitterness in his voice. I can’t even be angry with the corporation. I signed the contract. I was an idiot in my twenties. Most people are.

“I figured I’d become a free-holder—yeah, you have to buy your equipment from a corporation, but you produce your own crops in your own ag-dome, and you’re building the future.” He sing-songed the words derisively. “The stars never seemed so close, or so bright, and the numbers, while scary, didn’t look like the Himalayas. I’d be earning hazard pay every day. And if I worked overtime, or volunteered for double-hazard pay jobs . . . no problem! And I’d have been on Mars.”

He glanced at the screen to his left, with its view just outside the drone’s hangar enclosure. Pinkish-gray regolith, not the brazen reds of Mars. “Then I met your mama. She’d taken the same deal, but with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.  Her father had been a company man his whole life. The only difference indentureship made for her, was where she’d be serving the company. And Masami wanted to go to Mars as much as I did. And then we . . . well, fell in love.” He sighed. There was a deliciously confessional edge to this. To let the words seep from his soul, from where they’d so long festered. “You weren’t supposed to be born, son. The odds were astronomically against it.” She was on the pill. I’d refused to have a vasectomy in spite of the radiation exposure on the trip to Mars, because I was going to be a free-holder. With kids to inherit an ag-dome, not just a heap of debts.

He took a sip of coffee. It took patience to drink from an unlidded cup in micro-g. It took patience to pour that cup, too, watching the fluids slowly flow from a carafe to the cup. He could judge how long someone had been on Ceres by how they poured. And when they spilled, how fast they leaped for paper towels, before realizing that they had time to catch their coffee with the carafe before it actually hit the floor. “I’m sure your mama has shown you the news vids about your birth. Pascal Ryuu Raske, first human child born on Mars.” He paused. “She’s probably left out the parts about how our managers asked us to terminate the pregnancy. And when we said no, they handed us a bill.” Emory stared at his desk. “Predictions of the cost for labor and delivery—not covered by insurance, because no one was supposed to have kids. The cost per cubic foot of air you’d breathe in your first eighteen years, and how many carbon scrubbers you’d cost the company. How much food you’d eat. Clothes you’d wear. Daycare costs, factored as time lost by other workers, called away from their own jobs to take care of you. Fees for long-distance education conducted by radio to Earth, and the radio time costs.”

Nausea had uncoiled in his stomach on seeing his unborn son’s life charted out with such actuarial precision. Rage had ignited with it as Masami had slipped her hand into his, and whispered, “Maybe . . . maybe they’re right. It was an accident. But this is too high a price for anyone to pay—”

“This is a bunch of crap, Masami. It’s scare-tactics. Just because we’re contact workers doesn’t mean that we don’t have rights.”

He’d called his parents, and in spite of being on a corporate line, asked them to contact a civil liberties organization and raise a stink. They’d done precisely that.

“PEI threatened to terminate our contracts, which would have meant going home to Earth. Paying for our student loans—okay, fair enough, but the cost of two roundtrip tickets to Mars? Years of travel and meals in flight?” He sighed. “Our lawyer pointed out that no pregnant woman had ever gone through a rocket launch. That, assuming the pregnancy wasn’t terminated by the launch, your mother would give birth en route to Earth, in the lonely dark, probably without a doctor on hand. And if she survived, that the baby’s first bath would be hard radiation. The lawyer raised such a stink that PEI had to back down from the media storm.”

Emory closed his eyes and tipped his head back. “So, they came to me with a proposal. If we couldn’t go back to Earth, then they’d buy Masami’s contract from Mitsubishi. And I’d . . . work off her debt, till she was able to return to the job. Work off my debt. Work off the expense of having you.”

He raised his eyes to his screens. “And that’s why I’m here on Ceres, and have been since before you were born. Triple hazard-pay. Extra shifts whenever I can get them. Chipping at a mountain taller than Olympus Mons with a toothpick. If I can hack it for five years? I’ll have gotten a little ahead. Given us a buffer. And I can go home to you and your mom.”

Longing filled his voice, though he tried not to speak loudly enough for people on either side of the cubicle walls to hear him. He literally couldn’t afford the space-flight back to Mars just to visit his family. But the thought of home was delicious. Just two more years. Please, god, just two more.

Drone operators on Ceres were paid hourly, not by the quality of their discoveries. Finding an asteroid filled with platinum paid the same as dredging through debris for cobalt. No way to strike it rich, as with the miners of the Old West. Just the remorseless grind of watching the numbers against him go up when he bought lunch at the cafeteria, and tick down again when he submitted his hours for the day. It’s like that old song my parents sent me last year. ‘St. Peter, don’t you call me. I can’t go—I owe my soul to the company store.’

Worse than the isolation, worse than knowing that there was no way out, worse than seeing Masami’s tired face on the screen, time-delayed from Mars on the once-monthly free video call that all employees were permitted. . . worse than all of that was the boredom. There were dead hours in every day, in which he could do nothing but watch telemetry from the drones’ autonomous guidance systems until they reached their destination. Emergencies are few and far between. But it’s still dangerous here. Supply ships four times a year. No outposts close enough to send help any faster. Isolated and surrounded by rocks spinning through the dark.

Two hours of boredom and two cups of coffee later, his messaging app chirped at his wrist. Emory stole a glance over his shoulder—contract workers weren’t supposed to take personal messages on company time. Hell with it. I’m running someone else’s shift. My manager—whatever her name is . . . Carol? Catherine? Kafka?—can bite me.

He flicked the message up on his wrist-pad, and realized with delight that it was from Masami. Good news, maybe, he thought. She’s looked on edge lately. Hasn’t looked straight at the camera, her eyes shadowed and tired. His mind wandered. Would be nice to get a smile from her . . . just a smile. That’s all the reward I need right now.

No video. No voice. Just text. Emory scrolled through it, his brows knotting in consternation: Emory—I’m sorry to write you this way, but I can’t do this anymore. The neighbors have been kind to take Pascal, so I can work part-time on the night-shift, but I just can’t do this alone.

“Alone?” Emory muttered under his breath, offended. “How are you doing this alone? I’m working here so that you don’t have to work, you’ve got neighbors and friends—” Where I’m surrounded by strangers whose names I can’t remember.

His eyes caught on the next paragraph as if by a sharp fishhook: One of the executives from Mitsubishi kept coming by to ask how I was. He’d take us out for noodles or ice cream—not the stuff from the corporate 3D printers, but imported from Earth. He asked me last week to consider marrying him. Emory, I don’t want to hurt you unnecessarily, but . . . I think it’s all for the best. You shouldn’t have to clear my debt and support Pascal, in addition to your own debt. I’ll be sending divorce papers for you to sign digitally, and since Shirou wants to adopt Pascal, there’ll be paperwork about signing over parental rights. It’s not as if you’ve ever met Pascal, or held him, so . . . please don’t make this more difficult than it has to be.

Emory sat staring blankly at the words on his wrist-pad. Make it more difficult than it has to be? he thought numbly. What, because I haven’t been there, I can’t possibly love my son? He wanted to spit the words at her out of his mouth like nails. The feelings in my heart are just a fantasy, an illusory by-product of the digital phantoms you’ve sent me once a month? His first steps on video. The first time he said ‘Daddy’ when looking at the camera? The fact that I’ve been working like a dog for three years for his sake, and yours, means less than ice cream and noodles from Earth? Emory covered his eyes for a moment, still seething. All right, that might not be fair. He’s there and I’m here. And three years away might as well be dead. I sure as hell feel dead most days, myself. But damn it, I don’t feel like being fair.

“Mr. Raske!” A sharp voice from behind him, and he turned to stare at his manager, with her long black cornrows tucked in a bun, regarding him with disapproval. “No personal messages during work hours, Mr. Raske. I’ll have to write you up.”

“My wife asked me for a divorce,” he told her leadenly. What’s her name? Carol . . . Carol something. Schumann, I think.

Her frown crumbled into human sympathy. “Do you need me to arrange for a flight home?”

Emory’s stomach felt as if burning metal bands had locked around it. It’s all been for nothing. Nothing I’ve done here has been worth a damn. “I’m sure the company will just charge me for it, so no, thank you.” His mouth tasted like acid. “But you can have someone in HR take my wife off my life insurance. Leave my son as my sole beneficiary.” I always joked that I was worth more to them dead than alive . . . .

Carol—he was almost certain that was her name—reached over and put a hand on his shoulder lightly. “I’ll have someone do so right now, but sometimes . . . these things blow over. People send messages in a moment of anger or unhappiness, and regret them a day later. It takes a little work to fix things, sometimes—are you sure I can’t get you a flight home?”

“The fastest a shuttle could get here from Mars is two months. I wouldn’t be able to get home before she’s filed the paperwork.” Emory shrugged, staring at the wall. “Ms. Schumann—Carol? Thank you for . . . being kind.” Maybe I should have tried to remember her name before this. They’re not all faceless corporate drones after all . . . .

He looked around his cubicle, at the pictures of his wife and son that he’d hung beside maps of the asteroid belt.  The stupid red ball cap hung over one wall’s edge that designated him a safety-officer for this section—he’d taken the gig because it meant an extra credit an hour to his rate, and he was the only person in the complex who’d been here long enough to know all the escape routes, besides the four security guards. All it had cost him was sitting through PEI and OSHA security classes once a year—billable hours. Billable hours at triple-hazard pay, he mocked himself. Enough to cover three people’s lives. But it was all for nothing.

Behind him, the drones he’d launched in his last shift sent a chirp through his speakers. He sat up and edged closer to his screens. Work. Just do the task in front of you. Don’t think about anything else. He evaluated what he could see of the slowly-rotating rock out there in the dark of space. Relatively large, over twenty meters in length. Pockmarked, slick-looking in places, speckled and rough in others. So, mix of nickel-iron and rocky chondritic composition—

Vibrations through his chair and legs, as if someone nearby had rolled a heavy cart across the floor. Emory, who’d been raised in San Diego, reflexively thought earthquake, and unbuckled himself from his chair, pushing gently away from his desk to move lightly to the doorway of his cube. A few heads poked out of other cubes, like so many rats in cages, and then a second rolling surge rippled through the room. Well . . . crap. Can’t exactly go stand in an airlock doorway, can we?

All of his inner turmoil had faded. None of it was important now. The only thing that mattered was the safety of the people on his team. What’s the procedure on this again? Right.  “Everyone,” Emory called over the hum of voices, grabbing his red hat from the corner of his cube, “put your drones back on autopilot and head for the upper floors.” The upper floors had the same amount of buttressing as the lower, but with fewer tons of rock and regolith bearing down on them. “Use the ladders, not the elevators, get to your quarters, put on your environment suits, and stay calm.” Yeah. Because if the tunnels collapse, the suits will give us all plenty of time and oxygen to really think about how screwed we are.

“What’s going on?” Jaidev demanded.

Emory didn’t have time to answer as Carol slid around a corner and jump-glided over to him, managing to catch herself on one of the cube walls as she did so. “Mr. Raske, these people are my responsibility—”

 “Ms. Schumann, I’m this section’s safety officer. And in the three years I’ve been here, I’ve never felt the facility shake like this. In my opinion, everyone needs to get up to the habitation areas. Now.”

The floor shivered for a third time, and people began to bolt for the doors, limbs flailing as they fought the microgravity. For an instant, they looked like a school of human fish, and Emory shuddered, picturing them flowing, dead-eyed and unmoving through murky waters, and  then forced the vision away. “Come on, people, you know better!” he shouted. “One calm, orderly line. You might not be able to trample each other here, but you can still hurt each other if you panic.” He pushed up off the floor, somersaulted, planted his feet on the ceiling, and pushed off again, arrowing through the writhing mass of his coworkers to land by the door, catching a cube wall to steady himself. “That’s it, there we go. One at a time—straight to the habitats. No pushing!”

For a wonder, they responded to the calm in his voice. Emory frankly didn’t know where it came from, himself—his heart pounded at least triple-time at the moment—triple hazard-pay, extra beats per second! the back of his mind jeered as he pushed Carol through the door, then Jaidev, then Vassily. And, having counted twelve people off for this section, Emory followed the rest of them out and up the emergency ladders. No stairs, of course. In this low g, he could just grab a rung and propel himself up the emergency shaft like a rocket. The trick was to do so without hurtling into the people ahead of him.

Halfway to the habitation area, red emergency lights flicked on. “Looks like management remembered protocols!” Vassily shouted down the ladder to Emory. Emory nodded, though the other man couldn’t see him in the dim light.

The shaft seemed to go on forever, and his ears suddenly filled, as if from a stark pressure change, and he had to swallow repeatedly to clear them. Once he had, he noticed the air movement—not air pushing past him into the depths, but pushing him up the ladder. As if there’s a plunger in the tunnel below us, pushing the air up. What the hell is going on?

Last out of the shaft, he paused at the door, just as security officers hustled right past him, out of a crowd of milling, confused employees, and started sealing the shaft. “Hey!” Jaidev objected, catching one of the men by the arm. “There could still be people down there—”

“Seventy-two people in this complex. We’ve accounted for everyone except the lowest levels—”

“Then why are you shutting them off?” Jaidev demanded.

His heart’s in the right place, Emory decided distantly, as if watching a particularly good movie, as the other officers frantically rotated winches to close the shaft off manually.

“Because they didn’t make it out!” the officer snapped, yanking his arm out of Jaidev’s grip.

The words fell into a kind of pause in the crowd noise around them, and silence spread out from them like ripples in a pond. “Earthquake?” Emory managed to ask into that silence.

One of the officers looked back at him, harried. “An asteroid hit the far side of Ceres last week. We weren’t expecting the ripples to come this far.”

Hydrostatic pressure, Emory thought numbly. Ahuna Mons, the cryovolcano in the northern hemisphere, is almost certainly the result of the Kerwan impact crater in the far southern regions. Hit a water-soaked sponge with a hammer, and watch which way the water flies. “What have we got in the lower levels?” he asked, not quite believing how level his voice sounded. Pure shock, that’s what this is—

“Video shows mud and ice pouring through the lower levels,” one of the guards replied, sounding shaken. “That’s how we knew the people downstairs bought it. Those levels are already full—we need to block the flow from getting here, and then try to give it all someplace else to vent.” He gestured at the doors to the emergency shafts.

That’s why my ears were popping. The air was being forced up the shaft and compressed as pink mud and ice chased it up the shaft—and it’s going to start coming through the cracks soon—about five seconds before the weight of it all pops the pressure doors right off, and it hits us like a cork from champagne bottle, Emory thought numbly. “The drilling drones we used to build this place are still in storage,” he supplied. “They should still work. We can get everyone outside in their suits, and use the drones to cut diagonal shafts down to the lower levels. Assuming we can get a manager to sign off on our using remote access to pilot the drones, since our control center is probably filling with mud right now.” He couldn’t quite keep the irony out of his words. “But a couple of new shafts would give the sludge someplace else to go.”

That got him looks from everyone. “What?” he asked irritably. “I was here when they built the place. I piloted the tunnel drones a few times.” Billable hours. Triple hazard-pay! “Anyone have the current access codes?”

One of the managers—an Asian man in his mid-fifties—ventured that he probably had the codes in his computer, and glided off to find them.

And so, ten minutes later, encased in environmental suits that would, perhaps, give them all eight hours of air, heat, and protection from radiation, they stood outside on the uncertain surface. Sixty humans, roped to one another, with twelve people serving as anchor points, roped to the rock face to keep people from floating away after vigorous, frightened movements .029 g, Emory thought, his mouth dry. The Moon is .16 g. We can’t achieve escape velocity by jumping, but it takes a long, long time to fall here. He pictured coffee slowly uncoiling from its carafe towards a cup, unfurling like a scarf of liquid silk. A really long time.

Emory, Vassily, and Jaidev logged into the drone control network—the servers were all on the top floors, fortunately—and used portable control units, manipulating the tiny joysticks and touchpads delicately with their clumsy, gloved hands. The tunnel borers were all about the size of men, and had treads like tanks that allowed them to scoot down the rough terrain with little difficulty. Jaidev was so tense that he overcorrected one turn, and one of his drones went sailing over the cliff’s edge, provoking groans over the radio.

“It’s fine!” Emory called. “That drop can’t hurt it here. Just a faster route to the bottom. Jaidev, get your bearings and start digging. Vassily and I will be down shortly.”

Carol, to Emory’s deep gratitude, kept everyone else back, out of their faces. Prevented distraction as they all squinted at the small screens and found their initial dig point. “Let’s go,” Emory muttered, and got his drone’s boring tools and microlasers running. Eight hours of oxygen. Am I kidding myself here? Can we dig down that far, in that amount of time?

They opted to work together on one fairly large borehole, rather than cutting three simultaneous tunnels from different directions. This allowed the borehole to be wider than any one drone working by itself—but they needed to move with precision, and not to get in each other’s way. Not to get their equipment fouled, or to damage the drones.

Three meters became nine as one hour stretched into two. Three meters an hour wasn’t bad through regolith, but at nine meters, they hit rock, which slowed the drills.

Nine meters became twelve, and two hours stretched to four. Numbers. Numbers on a drone’s battery gauge. Numbers on an oxygen tank. Numbers on an actuarial chart, plotting out the course of a child’s life. Numbers on a paycheck. My whole life’s been governed by numbers, and it still is, even now. Emory only realized that he was sweating when droplets fell onto the mask of his visor, and he glanced up, suddenly knowing that he was out on the surface for the first time, really. Out where the water vapor rose lightly up from the surface before subliming off into space. Out where the rocks’ shadows threatened to cut, and the lonely darkness of space dominated everything else. Don’t get distracted. God, where did that wave of tiredness come from—oh, right, back-to-back shifts . . . . He forced himself to concentrate anew. Focused resolutely on the task at hand.

Twelve meters. Their best guess and some simple geometry suggested that they needed about sixteen meters. Fifty-four feet.  The complex had been sunk ten stories deep under Urvada Peak, for radiation protection and insulation. Dropping their drones to the ledge nine meters below let them start that much further down the mountainside. But they needed to cut down to at least the seventh level, though all that insulating rock.

And then, without warning, their screens went dark.

“What?” Vassily snapped, his head jerking back as if struck. “What happened—”

“Mud-flows made it to the server cores,” Emory said, his head drooping in exhaustion. “Can’t communicate with the drones through them. Get everyone off to the side—it’s going to start coming out of the airlock here pretty shortly.” He unclipped himself from the safety ropes, watching his hands moving as if they were the drones, puppeted by someone in a distant control room. “I’m going down there and I’ll put the drills on manual. They just need to keep going, after all. Then I’ll . . . get back out.” Except when one of them runs out of battery, you’ll need to send the next down. And the next.

“I’ll go with you—” Vassily said, starting to unclip his own harness.

“Nah. No need for two of us.” Emory stared over the edge, barely feeling it as Carol moved up beside him and gripped his arm through the suit. “I always used to joke that thanks to my life insurance, I was worth more to my family dead than alive.” He forced a smile to his lips, though they couldn’t see it. His face felt like cement. Like mud-ice. “Guess that might really be true.”

They protested, of course, but he could barely hear them over the blood pounding in his ears. And really, they didn’t have time to argue. He stepped over the edge, holding onto the end of a rope that they handed him. Descended, dreamlike, watching light drift through the faint tendrils of mist around him. And then crawled down into the tunnel the drones had cut. Not enough room to stand as he clambered to where the drones stood motionless, unable to receive commands because the server network wasn’t online to mediate the signals.

Using his wrist-pad, strapped over his suit’s arm, for illumination, Emory got the first drone back online, and manually directed its auger against the wall. Less than twenty-five percent power. Damn it. It’s not going to be enough.

His radio periodically crackled with worried voices asking for status updates. “Drone One just lost power,” he told those above tersely when he had something to report. “Dragging it back out and sending in Drone Two.” Through the rock, he could feel the vibrations of the drone’s tools, the harmonics changing as the machine ran lower on power. At the six-and-a-half-hour mark, Drone Three whimpered to a halt, and Emory wanted to shout and scream with frustration as he dragged the machine out of the way.

“Raske, did you have anything to report?’ Carol’s voice on the radio now, sounding worried but surprisingly calm.

So close, he thought, defeated. So god-damned close. Hour and a half of oxygen left in which everyone can panic and scream and cry. Do I report that? Do I report that we’d all be better off just opening our visors and breathing vacuum for a minute or two?

But as he dragged his gloved hand across the wall, numb now from the cold seeping into the joints, the illuminated face of his wrist-pad showed him a trickle of moisture. Wait. Wait just a damned minute . . . what’s a minute at triple-hazard, anyway?

Hazy with exhaustion, Emory scrabbled in the tunnel above him, finding a stone. Humanity’s first, best tool. A nice, big rock. And he swung it at that unforgiving wall, again and again, seeing the trickle of moisture grow wider. A crack formed—can I stop now? No, can’t stop. The hydrostatic pressure on the other side will break it eventually, but this has to happen fast. For everyone’s sake’s. He hit the wall again and again, and as he did so, he keyed his radio and said, “Carol? Ms. Schumann?”

“Yes, Emory?”

“You remember what we talked about this morning?” It was only about a century ago. She should remember, right? “About my son and my life insurance?”

“Emory, what are you saying?” Carol’s voice went up half an octave in pitch. “Why are you talking about that now—”

“You make sure my son gets it, all right?” Emory swung the rock again, feeling as if he were floating somewhere over his exhausted, half-frozen body as the first sprays of water and mud began to spurt through the crack at last. “You promise, all right?”

“Of course I promise, but we’re all going together—” Her voice hitched.

No. Some of us are going on ahead. He brought the rock down one more time. Like I said, I was always worth more dead than alive.

The wall of mud-ice hit him in the chest, bowing him in half. It felt like taking a cannonball to the chest, and he thought his ribs had snapped. He couldn’t breathe. Just an impression of force and pressure, barreling him through the tunnel behind and above him, the rock of the channel tearing at his suit. It felt like riding through white-water rapids, but while being shot out of a cannon at the same time.

Sixteen meters later, Emory Raske catapulted up into the sky, propelled by a cryovolcanic geyser, his arms and legs pin-wheeling, limp as a starfish washed up on the shore, a shadow against the night-black face of the universe.

He regained consciousness long enough to register that he was somewhere far above the surface, deep in the eternal black of Ceres’ sky. Either that launched me into orbit and I’m going to be Ceres’ only moon . . . or it’s going to be one hell of a long, slow fall . . . .

And then consciousness faded away again, leaving him one with the lonely dark.   

This story originally appeared in Compelling Science Fiction.

Deborah L. Davitt

Historical fantasy, science fiction, horror, and, usually, a mix of all three.